Support Independent Journalism. Donate today!

To Stop the Spread of Coronavirus, California Officials and Attorneys Call for Eviction Bans

Experts say evictions cause a ‘downward spiral’ of health problems for renters, and that housing security is necessary to slow the spread of the pandemic.

Photo by Philip Pacheco/AFP via Getty Images.

Officials and tenant rights advocates in California are calling for dramatic measures to protect renters during the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, pandemic. City leaders in San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Jose, and Oakland are moving toward adopting local eviction moratoriums. A statewide measure is also being considered: California Assemblymember Phil Ting announced yesterday he plans to introduce a bill to put a statewide moratorium on evictions for renters who cannot pay their rent because of the impacts of the viral outbreak, namely the sudden drop in business activity, especially at restaurants.

Evictions “can be a matter of life and death,” said Allyson Gold, assistant professor of clinical legal instruction at the University of Alabama School of Law. She said evictions often lead people to live without shelter on the streets, in homeless shelters, or doubled up with family or friends. “If we have overcrowding, we could see a quicker spread of infectious diseases in those circumstances,” she said.

Landlords can be less likely to rent to people with prior evictions, she noted, which means many end up in substandard housing, where mold, pests, and other hazards can cause chronic health problems. Furthermore, an eviction can often force renters to move out of communities where healthcare resources are more accessible, she said.

Tenant attorneys say housing security for everyone is essential to the success of basic public health strategies needed to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“We are already in a housing crisis and now we have a housing crisis colliding with a public health crisis,” said Meghan Gordon, housing director of the East Bay Community Law Center, a nonprofit legal aid group in Oakland. 

On Wednesday, at the Alameda County State Superior Courthouse in Hayward, Gordon was one of dozens of attorneys standing shoulder to shoulder in a hallway with nearly 100 tenants and landlords during the court’s Wednesday conference day, a mandatory mass meeting judges make renters and landlords attend to try to settle eviction lawsuits instead of taking them trial. Gordon said the daily operations of eviction courts in urban counties create exactly the kinds of mass gatherings which can spread contagious diseases.

Some of Gordon’s clients are especially at risk of contracting the virus. Last week, she said one of her cases involved a man with HIV who had to travel to the court on public transit. He asked a judge to delay his case one week because he fears being exposed to crowds right now.

Hilda Chan, an attorney with Bay Area Legal Aid, which represents very low-income renters facing eviction in San Francisco, Alameda, and other Bay Area counties, said many of her clients already have physical and psychological disabilities and that an eviction can be catastrophic, especially if it’s during a pandemic.

One of Chan’s current clients facing eviction is a single mother with a baby and an 8-year-old daughter. If she loses her case, said Chan, she loses the safest space for herself and her children and could end up sleeping in a vehicle or in a shelter.

Chan said the courthouse is also risky because it requires large group gatherings. “Sometimes my clients have to bring their kids to court,” she said. “Folks are in there with walkers and oxygen tanks. We’re not given a choice but to show up to a dangerous crowded atmosphere. It’s dangerous for the court staff and jurors as well. The court requires attendance.”

Leah Simon-Weisberg, a tenant attorney in the Bay Area, tweeted a photo of a crowded eviction court hallway calling it a “mass gathering” which should be suspended.

Yesterday a coalition of Bay Area attorneys contacted the Alameda County State Superior Court and requested it suspend all eviction cases for two weeks. But Chad Finke, the court’s executive officer told The Appeal that “at this point, we have not suspended hearings and settlement conferences in [eviction] cases.”

“We are, however, making adjustments to our calendars with the goal in mind of reducing the number of people who are in court at any given time,” he wrote in an email. “Again, these plans are subject to change and reevaluation, given that the guidance coming from public health authorities is rapidly evolving.”

Some legal aid groups have already started closing their in-person intake offices in order to comply with government guidance on how to stop person-to-person transmission of the coronavirus.

Jackie Zaneri, a staff attorney with Centro Legal de la Raza, a nonprofit that represents low-income renters in Oakland, said this will put renters at a disadvantage if the superior court continues to hear eviction cases.

Most of Zaneri’s clients are less able than others to take time off work. Many work service industry jobs that put them in contact with the public, and many are disabled and elderly.

“I have a trial scheduled on Monday,” said Zaneri. “My client is in his 70s. Should he be in court? Probably not.”

Gordon said hitting pause on evictions makes the most sense because the risk of spreading the virus in courthouses and the health impacts on displaced are much greater than the financial risk landlords face with a temporary moratorium.

“If you delay these hearings, landlords don’t lose their rights, but we could avoid mass exposure,” Gordon said.

Elected officials and tenant advocates across the U.S. are calling for similar measures to strengthen housing security during the first stages of the epidemic.

In Florida, the Miami-Dade Police Department announced Thursday that it had “temporarily suspended all eviction activities” during the crisis. Philadelphia City Councilmember Helen Gym has proposed a moratorium on evictions, foreclosures, tax liens, and utility cut-offs in the event of a major viral outbreak. A New York state senator introduced a bill Thursday to ban evictions and foreclosures during the pandemic and “future emergency declarations.” In Massachusetts, activists with the tenants’ rights group City Life rallied on Wednesday outside the Boston Housing Court asking for a halt to eviction proceedings. 

“No one should be tossed out on the streets in a pandemic,” said Zaneri. “No one can self-isolate if they don’t have a house.”